World

Remembering Steve Sotloff, and Too Many Others

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Etienne de Malglaive/Getty

I heard the news that Steve Sotloff might be dead in the same place I heard about the planes crashing into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001: in the Paris Métro.

Everybody remembers where they were when that horrific event happened, but by a miserable twist of fate, I was also in the Paris Métro one year earlier—in May 2000—when I learned that my close friend and Reuters colleague Kurt Schork had been murdered in Sierra Leone.

I can remember everything about the moment I found out: running up the stairs of the Métro—Line 8, Chemin Vert—happily clutching my duffel bag, dirty and tired from a month in the field of Sierra Leone. I had left the country 18 hours earlier, caught a Doctors Without Borders helicopter from Freetown to Conakry, Guinea, hoping to spend a night in Paris, then go home to London, take a bath and sleep for about a week.   

Then my phone rang. I remember it all as if it were in slow motion.

It was a television station, asking if I would go on the air to talk about “the killing of the journalists in Sierra Leone.”

“What journalists?” I asked, my heart sinking. The voice on the other end was embarrassed and compassionate—she realized that I did not know, that I had been on the Air France jet headed home when my friends were murdered.

She told me it was Kurt, and Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora. I remember dropping my bag on the pavement, and that same feeling—of disbelief—washing over me. I had had dinner with Kurt the night before, and breakfast with Miguel just before they both set out for Rogberi Junction, where they were both brutally murdered.

Images raced through my head of the two of them. We were colleagues and buddies from way back: the war in Bosnia, where we all started out as kids (or, in Kurt’s case, a midlife career change from running the Metropolitan Transportation Authority). We had gone through numerous bombing raids, ambushes, attacks, and laughter together. What had Miguel and I eaten for breakfast? A chicken sandwich on white bread and a Coca-Cola, all that there was. We had watched, surreally, a torrent of frogs mating, like a biblical plague. Sierra Leone at the time was like a biblical plague.

Now, many years later, I have lost more of my colleagues. In Syria, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Egypt, in Palestine, and some by their own hands because they had seen and witnessed too much.

Every time I hear about the death of these colleagues, especially those in the field, knowing they were just trying to do their job, to report the story from the ground, I feel sick. And over the past two decades that I have been doing this work,  the lineup of my dead colleagues is growing. My mother grows depressed when more of her peers die from old age or disease. But my colleagues are being murdered by ISIS’s brutal and boastful method: beheading.

Tonight, in Paris, it happened again. Somewhere on the packed Number 10 Métro speeding toward Sèvres-Babylone, my phone rang, but the line dropped. It was a number I did not know in Washington. Then another call came in, from New York. Then Boston. I am a reporter: I know what three desperate calls mean.

When someone finally reached me, it was a TV producer with a grief-stricken tone: “I am so sorry about your colleague…”

Steve was funny. He was sweet. I thought of him as a younger brother, though he was extremely well-versed in the Middle East’s politics and culture, having lived in Yemen and Libya. He had a wicked sense of humor—hilarious tales of the absence of dating, takeaway food and the cinema during his time in Benghazi. The laughable humiliation of being unable to pick up chicks on his break in Istanbul while sporting his newly grown “jihadi beard” (grown because of a lack of water in Syria to shave with).

It seems irreverent and perhaps disrespectful to write about Steve when his own family has maintained a dignified silence and has asked for their privacy to be respected. Their agony, their loss must be insurmountable. I watched his mother Shirley plead with the ISIS cowards who held him, and heard her voice grow more and more choked with grief.

I also have a son. I am not sure, if I was in her shoes, that I could have maintained her steady decorum.

I have often wondered about my fallen colleagues who died faster than James Foley or Steve, whether or not they had some fatal intuition that a mortar round or a rocket or a sniper would hit them. My greatest wish is that Steve did not know that he was going to be killed, that he was not forced to sit it out, waiting for his gruesome death after he was forced to watch Jim’s. The brutality and cruelty of it leave me speechless.

It also leaves me angry. For what ISIS wants is for us to take note of the death of this sturdy 31-year-old reporter from Florida and gather fear from his death. They want us to fear them more, as they gain more momentum in the region. Because if we don’t report, who will tell the story of the civilians on the ground? Killing Steve in the wake of Jim’s death, so brazenly, can only be a message to us in the West: We will stop at nothing.

It would be easier now not to be angry, but I often think of what fueled the best war reporters I know or the ones I admired the most: George Orwell; Martha Gellhorn; Michael Herr. Anger and passion. It would be too easy to abandon Syria now, for that is what ISIS wants. But we cannot—not diplomatically, politically or even, from my humble perch, as reporters. We cannot abandon being eyes and ears on the ground. If we do that, we allow ISIS to win.

Steve, like all of us, reported half with fear, half with conviction. But he did not think he would die, and certainly not in the way that he did (if it is confirmed). One of the last messages he sent to me was this: We are all naive. I still run out to take video on my cellphone when bombs drop out of jets. It’s easy to feel invincible, even with death all around.”

Shortly after I got the news, I got a message from a dear Iraqi friend, a journalist who used to work with me during the worst days in Iraq. He and his family have since moved to America. He said that we, as journalists, should never give up. Especially now, especially with ISIS’s glee over its ability to kill. “I really support you,” Ali wrote. “We have to report the truth or they will win.

WE should win…. We, journalists should tell the untold stories of the oppressed.”

Ali never met Steve. But I know if Steve had heard that, he would have agreed.

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